Category Archives: Neo-Liberal economics

Why we need economists

Being a former social worker and state secondary school teacher I am used to belonging to a profession that is disparaged in the media. Now I find that being an economist means that I am subject to similar vilification. What made economists (or rather the good economist) so disparaged is that they tell inconvenient or awkward truths about the economy and society. When faced with such truths politicians and the powerful will resort to abuse to silence the truth tellers. What is remarkable is that we have a parliament dominated by graduates from our elite universities and yet they are in greater ignorance of the world around them, than the parliaments of the past! Parliaments that were mocked for having too many of trade unions and country squires, men supposedly lacking in education and knowledge of the world around them.

Having made this declaration I must now produce the evidence to defend my assertion. These awkward truths usually are warnings about coming troubles that politicians would prefer to ignore. When the great crash occurred in 2008/9 politicians claimed that it was a once in a lifetime event that could never have been predicted. An economic act of God. The truth is that all the warning signs were there and instead of acting on them politicians refused to act, as any action taken would have been cutting spending and that would have been unpopular with the electorate. There were two causes of this crash were the banks irresponsible lending policies, such as 125% mortgages. The other guilty party were the governments and central bankers who rather than regulating the market for the greater public good, preferred to turn a blind eye to the irresponsible behaviour of the bankers. Their justification for their inaction was the doctrine of neoliberal economics, which states that economic well being is maximised under the free market economic system.

I suspect that those trade unions and squires of the past would not have been so gullible, as they had a superior understanding of human nature. They from their dealings with bankers would have known that these men were not the giants of the financial world but men as fallible as themselves. These men would have recognised that greed for ever greater and greater financial rewards motivated these bankers.

Awkward truth warning – little has changed since 2008 bankers are still lending irresponsibly and the government is still turning a blind eye to such behaviours. One area of concern is car finance, it is suggested that car dealers in their desire to sell more and more cars are not paying sufficient attention to the ability of their customers to fund their repayments and the risk is that these buyers will default in the future on their loans. This will cause the defaulting customers to return their cars leaving the dealers with an unsold mountain of cars other hands. This would in itself be sufficient to cause another economic downturn. The banks who source the funds which enable the car dealers to offer generous financial terms to buyers, rather than offering a word of caution or refusing to increase there lending to the dealers just continue to shovel cash in their direction.  Other forms of bank lending such as to the property market suggest that bankers have not learnt the lessons of 2008 and unfortunately neither has the government.

As an economist you learn to read the runes, in my case as I have no access to government statistics, it is those short comments in the financial section in the newspapers that give the game away. In this case it was a short piece of no more than three or four lines. A financier was asked if the Bank of England was now cracking down on irresponsible lending to prevent a repeat of 2008/9. His answer was no, as the governor knew that if he reduced borrowing he would cause an economic slowdown, which would increase unemployment with all its associated problems. If I read the article correctly little has changed since 2008.

I also realise that the banks have fought tooth and nail to stop the governments of Europe and the USA to make them resilient in the event of any future crisis. British banks have successfully persuaded the government that reserves of 3% are sufficient to enable them to ride out any future crisis. European banks have even smaller reserves. These reserves are either cash or assets that can be easily turned into cash to meet the demand for cash from their customers. (A greater ratio of assets to lending would limit the money banks could lend and in consequence reduce their profitability.) The suggestion is that in an event of a repeat of the financial crisis of 2008 the banks will lack sufficient reserves of cash to enable them to meet their customers demands for money. In a crisis customers fearing the future will withdraw their savings from the bank, either because they doubt the loudness of the bank or they want money in hand to deal with any future crisis. It will only take one bank to close its door for a general panic to ensue with the consequence that the government yet again will have to step in to bail out the banks. If the banks held greater reserves as have happened in the past such temporary crisis could easily be resolved  The banks would have sufficient quantities of cash in reserve to be able to pay those panicking customers who wanted their money back. Once it was seen that the banks had plenty of money the panic would cease. However if banks have insufficient cash reserves the whole system is liable to collective failure. If only one bank has to close its door, because it cannot meet its customers demands for cash, the contagion will spread and there will be a major run on the banks. Yet again the government would have to rescue the banks from their follies of their own making.

However we tellers of awkward truths have a problem. We cannot predict exactly what will happen or  when. We are tellers of possibilities and probable truths and us such we can be easily discredited. Economist predicted that a vote to leave the EU would have a negative impact on the economy. Then when in the days after the Brexit vote, the economy failed to collapse the naysayers could claim that they were wrong and that the collective opinion of economists was worth no more than that of the collectivity of politicians. What these naysayers overlooked was  that the Governor of the Bank of England being all too aware of the negative impact of a Brexit vote took immediate action to offset its negative economic impact. He simply increased the amount of to the nations borrowers enabling them to go on spending spree which prevented the economy from taking a nose dive. What the naysayers don’t realise it that it is a crisis postponed  not as they believe an imaginary economic ghoul or nasty conjured up from the feverish imaginings of the economists.

There is one prominent economist or truth teller who has consistently, warned of the impending credit crisis but is consistently ignored by governments and that is Anne Pettifor. She is never called to sit on the committees that governments set up to advise them on matters economic, as they don’t want to hear her truths. She has written extensively about the impending first world debt crisis, yet like some unheard of  Old Testament prophet her writings remain in obscurity.

Our one weakness as economists is that we cannot say exactly when or how or what we predict will happen. Even more frustratingly we can be right but events prove us wrong. There are no economists that can accurately predict the future, we are the scientists of the possible or the perhaps. The economy is such a volatile and complex construct that sudden and unexpected changes can make fools of us. This is why a leading politician* can say with confidence  ‘we have had enough of experts’ (meaning economists) and be praised in the media for his sagacity and foresight.

Yet our awkward truth remains the economies of Western Europe and the USA are over indebted and not one government has taken any realistic debt reduction measures. The fact that Britain with Japan shares the unwanted title of the most indebted of developed countries has passed our politicians by. They will speak endlessly about the public sector or government indebtedness, but they are focusing on the mice in the room while ignoring the elephant that is private sector indebtedness. Prior to the crash of 2008 government debt was less then a tenth of private sector debt. While great pains have been taken to reduce government debt little has been done to reduce private sector indebtedness*. This indebtedness will possibly rise to unheard of levels as the Governor has said that he is relaxed about the possibility of banks increasing their assets to nine times the size of GDP. Banks assets are loans, so he is relaxed about the banks increasing the nations debt to nine times the total of its wealth!

*Michael Gove a prominent politician who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU

* A policy practice that is common to all Western European governments.

Contemporary Britain, a country dominated by Nietzsche’s untermensch (under men)

Nietzsche hated democracy because it makes possible the rule of the common man and the suppression of the superman. A term that Nietzsche uses to describe the common man is untermensch or underman, a term which was open to misunderstanding and abuse. What he meant by the untermensch was a man who lacked the potential to live the life of a ubermensch or superman. What was never understood was that for Nietzsche the distinction was based on intellect and character, not power or physical strength. Originally he named the saint, artist and philosopher as his supermen. Even his dislike of Christianity as the religion of slaves did not stop him admiring Christ as a possible superman. He admired Christ as a founder of a religion but despised Christians for slavishly following the beliefs of another. What I think is most useful is his description of the untermensch as those in thrall to a slavish culture. People incapable of independent thought. When I look at the British parliament and the legislatures of other Western nations it seems obvious that we live in an age of the untermensch.

What the untermensch share is a slavish adherence to a common culture which means that politicians of whatever political stripe, will all give the same replies to questions on policy. These are a few examples which demonstrate this clearly.

In Britain the housing market is broken and many people are forced to live in private rental sector. Properties in which they have no security of tenure and for which they pay ever increasingly exorbitant rents. Whenever it is suggested that these tenants should be given security of tenure or have their rents controlled, the same parrot cry comes from politicians, whether of the parliamentary left or right, that such controls would only make matters worse. They claim that such controls would force landlords to withdraw from the market, reducing the number of properties for rent and so making the situation worse for tenants.

Britain’s railways are the most expensive and some of the least efficient in Europe. When it is suggested that these railways should be taken out of private ownership and returned to the state, it meets with howls of derision from the collective parliamentary body. Everybody in parliament knows that the state is peculiarly unfitted to run business and businesses such as the railways are best left in private hands. The solution to the problem is as every parliamentarian knows is to transfer the railway franchises to more efficient private owners.*

There are many other examples of the politicians collective thought that could be mentioned. What is common to these practitioners of politics is a hatred of those that think independently, they expel or seek to suppress from the collectivity of politicians those who think differently. At present the parliamentary Labour party is seeking to purge itself of a leader who thinks differently. A glance at the politics of contemporary Europe provides evidence that those who think differently have no place in the mainstream political parties, they have to come from insurgent parties such as Podemos in Spain or The Five Star movement in Italy.

One common place truth of contemporary political analysis is that the political elites have lost touch with the people. It is a resentful and sullen people that turn to the populist parties of the right. These parties at leas recognise the pain of the people, something that the political parties of the left fail to do. Durkheim called socialism a cry of pain, the parliamentary socialist parties of today no longer this truth. Rather than ignoring the people, parliamentarians are following a culture that denies the validity of other expressions of the truth other than its own. Truths that might appear obvious to the people are to politicians merely uninformed opinions.

Another demonstration of the untermensch mentality is the slavish following of opinion polls. Rather than leading, politicians prefer to follow, all to often they are prepared to abandon their principles because the people as expressed a different views to theirs in an opinion poll and the peoples will  must be respected. Never do they consider that they are elected to lead the country, they prefer to follow.

The language of politics is so often that of the untermensch. One of our most popular newspapers is said to ensure that all of its content can understood by the average thirteen year. It does not tax its readers with difficult text or content. Similarly our leading politicians prefer the language of the thirteen year old which are  expressed in what are meaningless phrases or slogans. Our current Prime Minister is campaigning for re-election with a series of simple phrases, such as that she will provide ‘strong and stable government’ as opposed to the opposition who represent a ‘coalition of chaos’. She it seems feels no need to present a detailed and reasoned manifesto to the electorate.  A vague and rather meaningless manifesto will suffice and that is all she and her advisors believe is necessary is a few repeated slogans to get out the vote.

Defenders of the present political system will argue that the overwhelming majority of parliamentarians not only went to university, but elite universities and got good degrees. However the very intelligent can be members of the untermensch, as its a mentality or way of thinking and it is as much about  character as intellect. Politicians rarely stray beyond the party line or parliamentary consensus of views, they sacrifice their individuality on the altar of group think. What Nietzsche’s supermen do is to challenge the conventional thinking of the time. When politicians continually speak and think in the language of the average thirteen year old, it cannot but deform their personalities. What at first becomes a means of communicating with the masses through does through constant repetition become incorporated within their personality. They take some of the characteristics of what they affect to despise, the common or under man.

While I think that Nietzsche’s understanding of British democracy is correct today, it has not always been the case that the British parliament promotes the mediocre at the expense of the talented. Today parliament has been overtaken by the culture of the untermensch, whether its expressed in terms of loyalty to the one’s party, obedience to the will of the people or submission to the dominant Westminster belief system. In previous times there has been a much more vigorous culture at Westminster, one in which individualist thinkers could thrive and even achieve the highest office. What is needed is an ending of the stranglehold on Westminster culture of the parties of the consensus, then politicians of an independent mindset will begin to flourish there.

There are those who will have a different understanding of Nietzsche’s concept of the superman. Mine derives from the earlier writings of Nietzsche, as his understanding of the superman did change in his later writings. Obviously those who have read ‘The Will to Power’ a book created by his sister out of his notes will have a very different understanding. Personally I think that this understanding of Nietzsche’s superman is invalid and of little intrinsic merit.

* Any independent minded economist could easily expose the flaws in such thinking.

Fake Economics and the Great Shock Theory of Economics

This is the age of fake news it is also the age of fake economics. One such is the Big Bang or Great Shock theory of economics. It is the policy preference for those politicians that have a disdain for the facts. They have an impatience with the world of fact or reality as it does not fit with their view of the world. In a very prescient film ‘Who Shot `Liberty Valance’ , John Ford has one memorable line in the film in which the news editor states that ‘when the facts become legend, print the legend’. This very much describes today’s politicians who have a preference for their ‘legend’ or story over reality. One consistent and common story is that by administering some great shock to the economy they will shake it out of its torpor and kick start a new dynamic economic era.

Believers in fake economics or the story predominate in the politics of the Anglo Saxon world whether its in the form of Donald Trump or Theresa May. The latter believes the necessary shock treatment that will revive the UK economy is the leaving of the EU. Once firms are deprived of their cosy relationships with the European market, they will be forced to find new markets outside Europe (or go out of business). The necessity of finding new markets for their products will inject a new dynamism into business, so transforming British businesses into world beaters. Businesses will now put a premium on those leaders who are doers and the influx of doers into the top levels  of business will have this transformative effect. The proponents of this shock therapy do admit that some businesses will fail to adapt and have to close, but these failures will be more than made up for by the new enterprises that will replace the old failing businesses. However what the proponents of shock theory fail to admit is that the shock is as likely to kill as cure. Evidence from the past suggests whenever the government administers shock therapy to the UK economy it kills more than it cures.

The classic shock treatment occurred in 1981, when the government decided to introduce the reforms that are associated with Neo-Liberalism. The shock killed of 20% of UK manufacturing industry and unlike the theory suggests new businesses did not develop to replace them. One consequence is that the UK now has the largest trade deficit of any developed country (as a proportion of GDP). Good fortune has enabled the UK so far to escape the consequences of this folly, but that good fortune cannot last forever.

Much as in a John Ford movie legend has replaced fact. Politicians generally accept that despite the evidence to the contrary the 1980s were a success story. With such a complex institution as the economy it is always possible to find evidence for your own good story and even when there ar plenty of bad facts, as their existence can be conveniently ignored. Ignorance of the workings of the economy is so widespread amongst the political classes and the media that its easy to sell the fictitious ‘good story’.

One consistent story coming from the government is that British business can find new markets to replace those lost through leaving the EU. India is one of the most populous of Asian nations and it is home to one of the world’s fastest growing economies. This is claimed by government ministers to be one of the new markets British business can exploit.This year India has been the subject of two trade missions to India, one led by the Prime Minister and another by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.  What India requires from the UK is an easing of restrictions of Indian migrants coming to Britain and until that is granted it will not consider a new trade deal. This government has made its priority restricting immigration into the UK and this means that all those trade missions have been in vain. Until Britain makes some concessions on immigration, India will not open up its markets to UK business.

Trade deals with other nations are also fraught with problems that make any negotiations fruitless. Brazil and Argentina are the two largest economies in South America and as such should be a potential markets for UK exports. However there is one issue that prevents a new trade deal being negotiated. These two countries both have a large beef industry and would love to export beef to the UK. However in these two countries the cattle diseases such as foot and mouth are endemic. If the UK accepted imports of beef from these countries it would possibly be importing disease into the country. Then the UK would lose its status as possessing a disease free cattle industry. British beef farmers would then be prohibited from exporting their beef to such as the disease free countries of the European Union. The powerful UK farmers union would prevent such a trade deal, particularly as the governing party is the party of the largest of agricultural landowners. Economic realities mean this is yet another potential market that is closed to UK exporters.

However for the practitioner of fake economics none of this matters. When one of the most significant purveyors of false economics said that the public were tired of experts, what he meant was that they were tired of hearing the difficult truth. They like their political leaders want believe the easy to fictions of fake economics. What fake economics does convey is the false story that the political leaders of this and other countries know what they are doing and that they are making those policy decisions that will be of benefit to the economy and the people. Nobody wants the truth which is that our political leaders have only the vaguest grasp of economic realities and that are doing the equivalent of shooting in the dark.

There is one other great advantage of fake economics. When the train wreck of the great shock inevitably materialises the politicians can claim that is not their fault. They have done their bit in that they  have administered the correct medicine, the failure now is with the patient for not taking the medicine correctly. Business leaders and workers have failed to respond in the correct way, the failure lies with them, not with the government. When one of the major purposes of a policy is to transfer blame to some other party than the policy maker it is always going to be the wrong policy. Being unwilling to take responsibility for one’s actions suggests that at least sub consciously the policy maker knows that they are in the wrong.

Economic magic, the reason why politicians constantly interfere in the running of our schools. Also one economist’s explanation of Britains low productivity economy.

There is one untruth that is always repeated about the baby boomers pensions and the young. Regularly one politician or another states that baby boomer generation has taken such a large share of the nations wealth that little is left for the young. Recently the Resolution Foundation released figures that showed the median income of a pensioner household exceeded that of the of the average working family. This became a media horror story, which the media claimed demonstrated that pensions were to generous. What the media ignored was that the median income for pensioners is not especially high and what it demonstrated was the appalling low level of incomes of the average working family. Rather than as the politicians argued that there was an urgent need to reduce the incomes of pensioners; what it demonstrated was the urgent need to increase the incomes of working families. No politician or media figure stated the obvious which was that even if the median wage of the working family was increased to that of the pensioner household, the former would still have great difficulty in paying their bills.

Britain is a low productivity and low wage economy. Without structural change in the wider economy the majority of families will remain in the category of either the ‘just managing’ or ‘not managing’. Our government and politicians sort of acknowledge the problem by talking about the need for educational reforms, reforms that they claim which will produce a highly educated and skilled labour force. This highly educated labour force will then produce goods or services of a high quality which will be in great demand and will be highly valued. Then these workers will then be able to command high salaries because they will be so highly valued. Sociologists use the term magic to describe behaviour or practices that the practitioners (in this case politicians) believe will magically solve their problems. Of course magic does not exist and neither do the imagined solutions to our economic problems.

One can add the rider that twenty years of educational reforms have produced a workforce that is less productive than ever. Britain is slowly slipping down the world productivity league.

The real cause of the problem of low productivity and low wages is the business model practised by most contemporary businesses. This model can be explained  simply as the minimising the cost inputs and maximising the output of profit. Labour is the most expensive of the inputs and if the costs of that can be minimised profits are maximised. All the reforms of the neoliberal era have made its possible for businesses to minimise wage costs through what can be described as the zero sum or gig economy. What is taken from the workers is given to the business’s owners. Workers are no longer employed by  ‘Deliveroo’ for example but they are independent suppliers, who are contracted to work when there is wok for them. This system achieves a massive cut in wage costs as the independent suppliers are only paid when there is work for them, which means low incomes for the independent suppliers and high profits for the owners. Also the business can pass on many of the other costs of the business to the ‘independent supplier’. They insist that they  buy they own means of transport, whether it be bikes or vans. This has a further benefit in that the independent supplier has to maintain their vehicles meaning the worker and not the employer has to bear the costs of maintenance of the business’s vehicles. Delivery businesses (goods or people) such as Deliveroo and Uber have achieved the nirvana of business perfection. All the firms have to invest in is the computer systems and staff for the handling and dispatching of the customers orders, all other costs are borne by their self employed contractors. When firms invest so little in the business they can only be low productivity businesses.

High productivity requires investment in machinery, and staff training all of which are high cost. As successive governments have reduced workplace protections to a minimum, it has become much easier to make money by squeezing wages and employment costs to a minimum. It is no coincidence that in a high cost industry such as car manufacturing there are no British owned businesses, all are owned by foreigners. Even Britain’s prestige car manufacturers Rolls Royce and Bentley are owned by BMW and Volkswagen. When there is a successful British manufacturer such as ARM, which makes computer chips for most of the world’s smart phones, it is sold by its owners to a foreign company. The owners preferring to live of the proceeds of the sale and live a life less arduous than that managing a business.

Only if the government took on British management and introduced legislative changes that would persuade or compel them to adopt the high input cost business model, would the low productivity problem be solved. However the government and the political class generally see this as a problem to difficult to tackle, so instead they continue with the non solution of constant education reform. In consequence every year there will be introduced by the government a ‘proliferia’ of education reforms. ‘Shouting in the dark’ is a behaviour which is intended to demonstrate that those scared by the horrors of the dark can scare them by talking loudly. Believing the noise they make will show that they are confident of resisting the evil one and force it to turn away to  find an easier prey. Educational reform is a shouting in the dark, politicians hope that if they shout loud enough they will scare away the horrors of the low productivity and low wage economy. Also by shouting loudly they hope to distract the people from the real problems that they are failing to tackle.

Stoicism and epicureanism philosophies for today

Recently on radio there was a programme about the Roman philosopher and politician Seneca. What occurred to me was the similarities between the world in which Seneca lived and the one in which I live today. He witnessed the decay of the old Roman Republic into an authoritarian state which was at first ruled by the rich oligarchs, a rule which evolved into the rule of one man the Caesar. Several books I have read suggest that we are living in the last days of liberal democracy and that our political system is being subverted by the rich oligarchs who are turning our society into one that bears strong resemblances to the Rome of the last days of the Republic.

These similarities are no more than that, Britain is not becoming a society ruled by a new class of Caesars. Violence is not employed by the rich oligarchs to destroy their enemies, no opposition politician has suffered the indignity of being murdered and having his skull converted into a wine cup by his enemies. These oligarchs to gain power have used more subtle methods. They have corrupted the legal system with their wealth so all kinds of judicial restraints have been developed to silence their opponents.  One such restraint is the super injunction whereby a powerful individual or business can prevent any reporting or discussion of their alleged wrong doing as it is claimed that it will unfairly damage their reputation. Such stories can remained suppressed for years.  The other powerful weapon wielded by the oligarchs is the destruction of their opponents reputations. This is conducted through the publication of hostile articles in the media, which they largely control. It a weapon whose power cannot be underestimated, as when the politician Nick Clegg was asked to explain why so many MPs voted against their principles and backed the government over its policy to leave Europe, he said that they were scared of ‘The Daily Mail’. While there is no equivalent of the Roman mob who could be incited to attack opponents of the oligarchs there are the internet trolls. They can be whipped up into a frenzy and encouraged to launch virulent attacks on the oligarch’s enemies.

When hearing this programme I wondered if stoics such as Seneca who lived under the cruelest of authoritarian rulers could provide evidence of how to live the good life today in a society which is becoming increasing dominated by rich unpleasant oligarchs.

Stoicism taught that the world was created by logos (the spirit) and that logos remains force which continues to direct the development of the world and humankind. The logos determines everything, so people have a choice either to ignore logos and risk being crushed under its onward movement or change their actions and behaviours to accord with the movements of logos. What stoicism taught was that history was pre-determined and wise individual was the one who accepted their lack of control over their lives, Happiness was gained attained by those who cultivated an air of indifference to those things that they could not control. A person who valued material wealth above all else would suffer great pain from its loss. This cultivation of indifference reaches its extreme limits in the writings of Epictetus. He advises the father not to kiss his son goodnight or show any kind of affection, as that son might be dead by the morning. At its simplest stoicism was a philosophy of pain management. In the Roman society of the Caesars  it was rule by Caesar a capricious individual who if he wished could tomorrow deprive you of your wealth or even your life, therefore one should not be greatly attached to either.

In a society in which social and economic inequality is increasing to such an extent that it is likely that the great majority of people will be poor, in which the poverty that characterised earlier societies will begin to characterise the Britain of tomorrow. Material riches of even the most modest kind will be denied to a majority of people, so an indifference to material wealth will help them cope with a life of relative poverty. People would not be depressed for a lack of things of this world, as they have minimised their attachment to them. However such poverty does bring real suffering and why stoicism will help with managing the discomforts and unpleasantnesses of poverty it is not an answer to pain and suffering. Poverty is not caused by the movements of the logos, but through the greed of the rich oligarchs. A more activist philosophy than stoicism is required.

Stoicism was usually a philosophy of the educated rich. These people who had ample wealth could afford to affect to be indifferent to material wealth, as even under the worst of the Caesars very few of them lost their wealth. The poor of Rome preferred the fairy tale religion of the Olympian Gods. They would turn out in their thousands to celebrate the festivals of the old Gods, as the theatre of these festivals offered them some escape from the misery of their lives.

One positive effect of adopting stoicism as a philosophy would be an ending of the cult of celebrity. All these endless talent shows would lack an audience, as people would not longer see a rags to riches story as real, as celebrity would be due not to talent but the arbitrary movement of the fate. Also a people that attached little value to material wealth would have little interest in programmes which celebrated individual talent as a means to material wealth. Celebrity culture acts as a safety value, it releases the pressure that builds up from social discontent. The poor can be pacified by the fairy tales of celebrity that claim that no matter how poor there are celebrity offers an escape from poverty. People will instead have a keen sense of reality and are less likely to taken in by stories of celebrity success.

Stoicism can perhaps be called the philosophy of unpleasant reality and as such it will always lose out to philosophies of hope. In the Roman Empire such a philosophy of hope was Christianity.  Contemporary Britain lacks such a philosophy of hope which will act as a catalyst of change. There are many alternative philosophies in our society but they do not have the messianic appeal of Christianity with its potential for change.

There is another philosophy that was popular among the Romans of this time and that was epicureanism. This is a much misunderstood philosophy it usually thought of as the philosophy of hedonism, as Epicurus taught that the good life should be one of pleasure. However it was a very different pleasure that he had in mind. Individuals should take pleasure in the essentials of life, pleasure should be derived from enjoying a modest diet, dressing modestly, these things were sufficient to enable the individual to live a good life. If one took pleasure in the luxuries of life, life was reduced to a constant craving for more and more of sensual pleasures and this craving made life one of misery. For Epicurus only a person living a modest life could be described as happy.

Epicureans were often persecuted by the authorities because by only valuing a life lived modestly they threatened a society that valued overindulgence and sensual pleasures in all forms. At Roman meals the rich had vessels placed near the table at which guest could vomit into, so as to make room in their stomachs for more of the extravagant dishes that would be placed before them. They took pleasure in all kinds of sensual pleasures as demonstrated by the popularity of gladiatorial sports. Pleasure was gained from watching the pain and suffering of others. Epicurean philosophy through offering an alternative to the dominant philosophy of excess was seen as a threat to a society that valued excess.

If epicureanism was more widely known, there would be one major beneficial effect. The rich billionaires rather than being celebrated for their wealth, would be seen rather as slaves to it and as such to be pitied. There is one marvellous passage in Thomas More’s Utopia where it is seen as slavish behaviour to wear gold and valuable stones as jewellery or chains of office, they are seen as slaves to their possessions. If the rich billionaires who dominate contemporary society were seen to objects of pity, rather than celebrity, their malign influence on politics would be much reduced. Politicians would not seek out their company and not be so desperate to give them favours.It goes without saying that in contemporary Britain and the US the billionaires can buy policy favours, with what to them is the small change from their pockets. Unfortunately the most successful of our politicians worship wealth and despise modesty. Politics for them is a means to acquiring a substantial fortune.

In today’s papers an open secret is being exposed and that secret is that London is one of the major centres of money laundering for criminal enterprises. In this instance the police forces of Latvia and Moldavia exposed this criminal behaviour of the London banks. It was the poor underfunded police of two poor European countries that exposed this activity, not the well funded City of London police. Perhaps the relative poverty of the police and politicians there means they are of higher moral calibre than those of the UK. Only where wealth is so celebrated as the chief of virtues could such corrupt practices be sanctioned.

Billionaires by their very nature will always seek to corrupt those around them. What is the threat to our democracy is the willingness of our politicians to be corrupted by them.  An annual salary almost three times the median wage in Britain is seen as inadequate by most MPs. Too many of them seek sources of income from outside politics making them susceptible to persuasion or corruption. Now the successful politician is seen to be the one who uses their position to acquire the most wealth; the practice of politics taking second place to money making. Reform has become redefined as making changes in the law or society that benefit the MPs wealthy benefactors. Epicureanism with its emphasis on modesty if more generally accepted would give us a generation of politicians less susceptible to corruption and a political class more deserving of respect. Those few politicians uncorrupted by money are drowning amongst the swill of corruption that is contemporary politics.

Social democracy was formerly the force which ensured that the market economy worked for the benefit of the majority not the minority. Unfortunately nominally social democratic politicians have abandoned the substance of that philosophy believing that Neo-Liberalism was the philosophy of today. In the heyday of social democracy many politicians of the right subscribed to its tenets and contributed making Britain a fairer and better society. With the discrediting of social democracy it is unlikely that those moderate politicians of the right would ever subscribe again to its tenets. Epicureanism has none of the baggage associated with social democracy and could be easily adopted by those moderate politicians on the right. In a country with a political class in thrall to the philosophy of greed what is needed desperately in a philosophy of compassion and fairness to counter that extremism.

(Gauis Gracchi was the unfortuante Tribune of the people who lost his life and head.)

A reply to Michael Gove and all those who think the study of economics is of little value

What prompted this post was a comment from a friend to whom I was talking to over coffee. He informed me, politely of course, that my opinion as an economist on economic matters was of little value as it was no better than the common sense opinion of the man in the street. I was as an economist a self interested individual who was only interested in advancing the truths of my subject regardless of the truths of the real world. This friend I should add was a distinguished retired academic from one of our most prestigious of universities. Without trying to sound too paranoid it does seem to be open season on economists. We are one of the most discreditable of professions it seems. Whatever we do we cannot distinguish truth from the fiction.

This discrediting of the profession of economics was set in train by Michael Gove, a former senior politician in the UK and now a columnist. He said in reference to economists in the EU referendum debate ‘that people were fed up of experts telling them what to do’.  He was referring to a Bank of England report which stated that leaving the EU would have a substantial negative impact on the British economy. A report that was considerably over egged by his opponent George Osborne to discredit the pro-leave campaign. Whatever Michael Gove’s reasons, his was essentially a statement of British philistinism something which never lurks too far below the surface in any public debate.

What I will do is accuse Michael Gove and all his like minded followers of hypocrisy. This I can sum up in the following phrase, ‘they are happy to have Barney the Bear managing the nations finances but not managing their own’. Michael Gove as a MP and journalist has an income of several hundreds of thousands a year. Although I don’t know him, I imagine he invests part of his income in various fund management schemes. He will no doubt have a financial adviser who recommends the best possible schemes in which to invest. These various investment funds will be managed by people who employ economists. Investment funds and banks of various kinds vie to employ the best and brightest economists who leave our universities. They employ these economists to inform them about matters economic and more importantly to predict future trends in the EU and world economy. Then with this information they are best informed as to where invest their clients money. Michael Gove would expect his fund managers to be the best informed of people, yet he believes that being well informed on economic affairs is not a necessary qualification for a politician who manages the economy. For him as with many of his colleagues all that is required is old fashioned British common sense for the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer. I imagine my friend who although he disparages me for being an economist, does defer to experts such as myself when it comes to investing his savings.

I should add that this nation has a habit of employing Barney the Bear to manage the nations finances. A knowledge of economics is not required of those who become Chancellor of the Exchequer. In the past these Barney Bears were well informed people who took advice from the economists employed by the Treasury before making any decision. Now these Barney’s are likely to be single minded ideologues who having read Hayek and Ayn Rand at university believe that they have acquired the essentials of economic knowledge. Any further that knowledge of economics is a mere ‘gilding of the lily’ and unnecessary for a successful career in politics.

Some economists who have contributed to this disparaging of the profession, through their own arrogance and overestimation of their abilities. These are those economists who can be best described as the ‘forever after economists.’ Just as in the children’s fairy tale where the participants will forever live in a state of happiness and bliss, these economists believe that if their economics is adopted the people will forever after live in a state of happiness and bliss. I can identify three such economists who fit this category, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and the novelist Ayn Rand. While the latter never called herself an economist, she is seen by many contemporary politicians as written the Bible of Economics. What these three people have in common is the failure to recognise that the economy is a human construct which is as fallible as its makers. By ignoring this most basic of truths they could claim that if politicians followed there prescriptions they would create the ‘best possible of all economies’. The very many failures of the economies in which their ideas have been adopted, has demonstrated that the falsity of their ideas.

What is lacking in Britain is any real understanding of the economist and their work? If I was asked to describe what I thought was the role of the economist, I would say it is the reading and interpreting of the economic runes. Reading the economy is much like reading the runes, although the individual symbols are understood  there is some uncertainty about the exact message conveyed by the runes. Uncertainty because a contemporary historian cannot exactly replicate the in themselves the thinking of the rune carver. All of us are aware the individual happenings in the economy, such as increases or reductions in unemployment, businesses closing and opening; but only a specialist in economics can put all these individual happenings into context and explain their meaning. Since economics as with rune reading is subject to some uncertainty individual interpretations can differ, although not usually to any significant extent. Economists after reading the economic runes largely agree that Brexit will have a negative impact on the economy, what they disagree about is how great will be the negative impact. There are always a minority of economists who will misread the economic runes and give a very different interpretation of the message. They should be given exactly the same credence that those very few scientists who deny the reality of global warning are given.

Michael Gove will seize on the fact that a minority disagree with the large majority to say that are no economic truths as economists disagree as to what they might be all they can do is to state their own opinion which may have more or less value.  However as with climate change denying scientists very compelling evidence can be produced to prove them wrong. Similarly there is compelling evidence to suggest that those economists claiming that Brexit will benefit the economy are wrong. What Michael Gove needs to understand is that knowledge, even some knowledge is better than none. Ignorance is never bliss even in politics

Why economists lie

I should start with a disclaimer, I am an economist who likes to think that I am generally honest. What I am protesting against is the tendency of many practitioners of my profession to lie. They lie when faced with problems to which they have no solution, by claiming that to have policy solutions that in practice are unrealistic or untrue. 

Rousseau in his writings used the term amour-propre, words which have many synonyms in English and they include pride, self respect and vain glory. It is the last which is a fault that afflicts so many economists. They are the self acknowledged experts on the economy and are never willing admit that they are stuck for an answer. When a problem occurs they will look for an answer from their memory bank and choose one which seems to be offer the best solution. It is not an original solution, but one borrowed from the collective memory bank of all economists. What matters to the economist is that their answer will be judged as correct by their fellow economists not that it is the correct solution to the problem posed by the economy.  Given the complexity of the economy, they can always blame the failure of their policy recommendations on unexpected events.  The familiar its somebody else’s fault excuse is always available as a defence for a failed  policy. In this case its either the fault of the economy when they claim that the fault lies with  unexpected changes in internal or international economy, or its the politicians who fail to understand the policy prescriptions and implement them wrongly. When the great reforms of the 1980s were imposed on the British economy which led to a decimation of the British manufacturing sector; economists introduced another lie, which was that the pain being endured now would lead to a better future in which a revitalised economy which would work to the benefit of all. A future which never materialised.

What I am leading is a campaign for economists to say I don’t know. A willingness to look  at each situation afresh and use the skills of economic analysis to come up with original and new solutions to economic problems. Unfortunately the majority of economists believe that the economic toolset was largely completed in the time Alfred Marshall, whose most influential book the ‘Principles of Economics’ was published in 1890. All that is now required is a tinkering with the toolset left by Marshall to develop the economic policies needed for today. (Marshall systemised the study of market economics, developing a series of tools of economic analysis which are widely used today.)

The great change in the practice of economic policy making in the 1980s was the introduction of monetary economics associated with the American economist Milton Friedman. What was not realised was that he was merely adapting the quantity theory of money which was explained in a  book published  by Irving Fisher in 1911 to the world of the 1980s? Plagiarism in economics is not frowned on but worshipped, so long as the correct work in plagiarised.

Perhaps self censorship might be a more accurate term to describe the practice to which I am objecting. However every economist when studying the subject at university will either be taught about the flaws in the dominant model of economic analysis or would have come across them in one of the texts that they have studied. Yet once they leave university to practice their profession, they suppress their knowledge of the weaknesses or flaws of the favoured method of economic analysis. The act of forgetting probably becomes second nature to the practising economist. Deliberately ignoring the evidence that might suggest that their suggested policy remedies are flawed is an act of dishonesty. Lord Oakshott the former Liberal Democrat Treasury Minister once said that the British Treasury is populated by free market fundamentalists. What he was saying was that  Treasury economists were excluding from their economic policy making any evidence or thinking that was contrary to the free market model of economic analysis. This suggests that economic policy making by the government will be constantly subject to error, because of the wilful deception practised by Treasury economists.